After our son had been with us for about a year, we received a call about a little boy (we will call him “B” for this article) who needed a temporary placement while a fictive kin was becoming certified to welcome him into their family. If we didn’t say “yes,” they would transfer him an hour away, and he would have to switch schools. So, having just adopted our son, we said a shaky “yes.” We fell in love with B the second he came into our home. It was hard not to with his silliness, his contagious laugh, and his sweet smile. We didn’t know exactly how long he would stay with us, but we were ready to love him for as long as that was. I was mentally “prepared” for loving B, but I was not mentally prepared for saying goodbye to him.
We had already been in the foster care world for over a year, and I knew that I was going to have to pack his things and move him to his more permanent placement, but I just flat-out didn’t want to. I remember B’s caseworker calling me at 4 p.m. and telling me that I needed to bring him to his new placement that evening—around 7 p.m. I was in complete and utter shock that they expected us to just pack up his things and hand him over as if he hadn’t completely changed our lives in the last month. I drove home with teary eyes as I listened to B talk about how he didn’t want to leave and reassured him that he would love his new home.
In foster care, you cannot avoid making mistakes. We are bearing burdens and dealing with trauma and brokenness that should not exist in the first place.
Foster care is the act of attempting to make a broken situation a little less broken, so mistakes are inevitable.
I could have read a million stories about foster children going back home and the grief that it causes. I could have talked to fellow foster parents about saying goodbye. Those preparative practices would have been helpful, but I never would have been able to anticipate the sorrow that would come with putting B’s sweet little shoes and toys in a duffel bag to haul him to his next place. That kind of knowledge only comes with experience and time.
I am telling you of some of the mistakes I made in starting foster care not to prevent you from making them (though that would be wonderful), but rather to encourage you to make your own mistakes by jumping in and becoming a foster parent. My main goal in telling you my mistakes is to free you up to make mistakes, because if you’re messing up, then you’re in the trenches. And if you’re in the trenches, you care deeply about the lives and well-being of children who have faced unspeakable trauma, abuse, and neglect. And if you’re doing that, then you’re doing good work. So, take the leap of faith and make mistakes for the sake of children who need you. Be willing to be imperfect and learn from your mistakes instead of trying to be the perfect, most-prepared foster parent.
With that being said, there are some mistakes you can avoid in your foster care journey. If you can avoid these mistakes or be proactive in preventing them, then absolutely learn from my mistakes. However, don’t let the fear of making mistakes keep you from becoming a foster parent (and an awesome one, at that).
I didn’t have enough babysitters or breaks
In our training, they told us that we should have at least one babysitter. It was a requirement for licensure. Then, in addition, we should find respite providers in case we needed longer times away, vacations that were not approved by the state, or for emergencies. We took these as suggestions, finding a few people who could become babysitter-certified and asking for people to become respite-certified as well. However, we didn’t really take the need for babysitters and respite care providers seriously. When we got licensed, we had one licensed babysitter and zero respite providers. Honestly, we thought we were strong enough to handle foster care without those supports. However, we quickly found out that, with not much family around, we were going to need some support for date nights, breaks, and even just some church activities where we were required to have childcare. We needed babysitters that were knowledgeable about the age of our children and trauma, were easy to connect with, and who truly wanted to help and support us. We felt like our village of support was pretty limited.
After a while, we added to our “babysitter” list, but we felt like we still only chose the same people over and over again to watch our kids because we felt like it was important that our children stayed with people who loved and supported our family. It’s worth it to find multiple people (I’m talking five to seven different people) who will support you through babysitting and respite care ahead of time. These people will become your village of support, giving you the respite that you need in order to be the best parent that you can be.
A somewhat related issue that we came across when we started foster care was that we did not schedule date nights, weekend getaways, or breaks. We thought that, if we needed breaks, we would schedule them. But the fact was that we were going to need breaks, and scheduling them would not be that easy. The people on our babysitting list were busy; we were busy, and that amounted to very few date nights and opportunities to spend time doing other things we loved and that were healthy for us.
We only had one family that could do respite care for us, and after one year, they moved far away from us. Last February, we knew that we wanted to go on our annual student church camp trip in the summer. We contacted our pastor and his wife to see if they would be willing to complete the requirements for respite care, and they said yes. With our agency, respite care requires that you take mostly the same classes as a foster parent, so they were attending classes and completing paperwork up until the week that we left. Right before we left for camp, they realized that their caseworker through our agency had advised them to go to the wrong class, and they were still missing one. Last minute, they had to rush to the agency building and receive last-minute training before they were able to take our children for a week. This caused a lot of uncertainty and stress for all parties that could have been prevented if we had asked more people to be respite care providers (or had connected with more fellow foster parents) before receiving a placement. Forward-thinking will help you tremendously in your foster care journey.
My expectations were off base
When my (now adopted) son walked into our lives, I was a teacher, my husband was going to school part-time, and he was a part-time student pastor at a church. I was volunteering at our high school and middle school youth group, went to many of my students’ games and extracurricular activities, and our weeks were full and busy with activities. I knew we were going to experience a transition with the newest member of our family, but I didn’t really consider how we would have to change our schedule to allow him to feel safe and secure in our home. We experienced a lot of meltdowns and issues that happened from him being run-down, tired, and not feeling safe because we were constantly on the run. One time, my husband organized a retreat for students at our church, and I volunteered as the high school girls’ leader. Instead of finding babysitters (see mistake #1), we decided that our son could hang with us for most of the time, which led to a giant meltdown at the end of day two. I’m honestly impressed he lasted that long with how much uncertainty we were throwing his way! Looking back, I wish we had lowered our expectations for that time and allowed ourselves the space to figure out how to be parents and for our son to figure out how to be a part of our family. I wish we had changed our schedule to meet his needs instead of forcing him to meet our needs.
After taking the classes, reading the books, and watching the videos required for becoming a foster parent, I felt that I had a pretty decent understanding of trauma and the types of behaviors it might bring into our home. However, I somehow fell into the trap of believing that trauma affects children in the same ways and that the methods I learned in training would work with every child that entered my home, guaranteed.
I quickly found out that some children struggle with control and manipulation while others struggle with sensory needs. Parenting children who come from hard places is a matter of trial and error. With each child that enters our home, we consider it our mission to find connection, love, and discipline that works for him, that helps him feel valued and loved, and that contributes to his healing and growth. Yes, the methods in our training, books, and movies work for most kids who have come from trauma, but there may be other strategies not yet found in the research that could be helpful for a child that enters your home. It took me a while to reach outside of my comfort zone to try different strategies (maybe even my own!) that would help my child learn, grow, and heal.
I didn’t understand “felt safety” and the value of time
For a small part of our training, they educated us bright-eyed, soon-to-be foster parents about the difference between “safety” and “felt safety.” They explained that, even though children may be in a safe environment, they probably do not feel safe because of their traumatic past. Because of this trauma, their brains are often stuck in “fight or flight” mode, constantly on alert, and making sure that nothing is going to attack them. They may be in a nurturing and loving home, but their brains are on high alert, ready to respond to the next “hurt” they may experience. It is not until children experience feeling safe (also termed “felt safety”) that they are able to function at their full potential or even perform “normal” tasks for their age bracket.
Of course, this makes total sense. Children’s pasts don’t just magically exit when they arrive at the doorstep of a caring, safe foster parent. However, we want to believe that, after a couple of months, they feel safe. This is simply not the case. Felt safety starts to happen when a child experiences a loving caregiver meeting her needs—day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.
As a new foster parent (and parent in general), I believed that showing up for the children in my home, lovingly guiding them, and providing wonderful experiences for them would lead to “faster” felt safety. In the age of instant gratification, it makes sense that I would think this way. However, healing isn’t instant, and expecting our children to heal quickly for our own benefit is not helping anybody. I wish I had gone into foster care with this understanding that felt safety was going to take time, patience, and a lot of love and care. I think it would have given me more patience and compassion in the day-to-day interactions with my children.
You’ll never be ready
Foster care is a wild and unexpected ride, and each story is unique. As you prepare to enter into the world of foster care, know that you will never be fully ready to handle the trauma, pain, and brokenness that will undoubtedly enter your home. You could read all of the books on foster care, interview kids who have aged out, watch all the videos, take all the classes, and you still would not be prepared for what will come your way. You will make a wrong choice, get angry when you shouldn’t, and show up on the wrong court date. But you will also learn from that wrong choice, ask for forgiveness and connect with your child when you’re angry, and have a good laugh and unexpected ice cream with your spouse because of the wrong court date. And in the middle of feeling like you’re doing everything “wrong,” you will be loving and caring for a child who needs you to be willing to make mistakes for his or her sake.
So, my advice to you? You’re going to make mistakes on your foster care journey. Do it anyway.